"Show me a guy who does not like to drink or like women and I'll kiss your ass."
Over the course of his acting career, Billy Bob Thornton has built a reputation as Hollywood's go-to guy for the burnt-out, disturbed, aging alcoholic roles. Always the white trash jerk burdened with a heart of gold, this typecasting isn't bound by genre. Thornton's breakthrough, 1997's directorial debut Sling Blade, in which he portrayed the mildly retarded Karl Childers, was deeply dramatic; a year later he u-turned into the comedy Primary Colors, riotously depicting a maniacal James Carville-knockoff. The two roles placed him on Hollywood's A-list, and he's refused to slow down since.
"I think we all grew up with guys like that in our family, whether it was an uncle or a coach or whoever," Thornton, addressing his most-recognized characterization, says via conference call. "People have always liked the sort of lovable curmudgeon... you add a few beers to it, and I think it is just a pretty good mix."
Beer is something near and dear to Morris Buttermaker, Billy Bob's latest role in this summer's remake of the classic Walter Matthau family comedy, Bad News Bears. A former professional baseball player, Buttermaker's excesses have curbed his potentially great career and sent him into the extermination business. What Thornton terms a member of the "downtrodden or put-upon" type, Buttermaker is lured back into the game to coach the Bears, the most losing team in Little League history. At first skeptical of the project, Buttermaker eventually embraces his role, and the team begins to take off.
The frequently racy screenplay matches well with Thornton's penchant for playing self-pitying losers. "I like characters who seem to be sort of on the edge of life a little bit more who kind of learn something along the way and improve their lives somehow," he notes. Morris Buttermaker, as he puts it, is "kind of a loser who hooks up with some other losers and together they kind of feel a bit more like winners."
Thornton is proud that for a movie rated PG-13, Bears "pushes the envelope a little bit." The film's edge comes from its writers, the notoriously vulgar team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who wrote another Thornton hit, 2003's Bad Santa. While that film garnered a well-deserved R-rating, Bears aims to bring out a wider audience, setting certain limits. Acknowledging his oeuvre's historically adult demographic, Thornton says he has "two boys that are 10 and 11 and it is about time I made a movie they can see."
Thornton believes contemporary family films can more easily get away with adult humor than they could have 30 years ago. He attributes it the culture surrounding children today. "I think kids now watching South Park and things like that... I think it is sort of their sense of humor now," he notes. "I think kids are so exposed to things these days that it is hard to surprise them anymore."
As far as remaking a classic, Thornton claims the pressure was there, but not burdensome. "We tried to pretty much stick to the same tone of the first one, and it has been updated some -- kind of modernized," he says. The kids in the movie were, according to Thornton, "perfectly cast." Just as in the film, the child actors "were not great baseball players, which we needed."
Although it's edgy, sharp and splattered with political incorrectness, Bears, Thornton says, remains a family film because of its core message. "It addresses the sort of age-old problem of Americans wanting to win at all costs, that competition is everything," he expresses. "It's about how maybe you should not push your kids so hard. You should let them be who they want to be a little bit more."
It's safe to say that the words "Billy Bob Thornton" conjure a fairly clear image of trailer trash. In most of his roles, however, he's managed to show that beneath the Marlboro Red ash and empty Bud cans, there's something else. But don't fully discredit the myth -- his trademark rashness has helped him marry the likes of Angelina Jolie. When asked about his unique allure to women, he responds "how do I say this politely? I have always liked them for one thing... Also, I learned to use my sexual apparatus at a very young age"